The shocking truth about Silicon Valley genius Doug Engelbart

The shocking truth about Silicon Valley genius Doug Engelbart

Summary: He's lauded by many for his stellar contributions but no one would fund him in the last four decades of his life.

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TOPICS: PCs
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Doug Engelbart (left) with Tom Foremski
Doug Engelbart (left) with Tom Foremski.

Tributes to the genius of computer pioneer Doug Engelbart are flooding the web following the announcement of his death at the age of 88. 

His work transformed the way people use computers today by making them accessible and "personal." His seminal demo of computer graphical user interfaces using a mouse and keyboard transformed people's careers and changed the course of their lives -- even for those that weren't there but heard about it from others! [Doug Engelbart 1968 Demo]

However, despite all the accolades and testaments to his genius, Silicon Valley largely ignored his work and he spent decades trying to find funding for his ideas, and even someone to listen to him.

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Counter-culture and the PC

I met him in June 2005 following an event hosted at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in 2005 celebrating the book launch of John Markoff's, What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry.

A tribute to one of Silicon Valley's most influential and forgotten researchers at Xerox Parc event -SVW

The event was supposed to be about the book, but it quickly  turned into a tribute to Doug Engelbart, as John Markoff, and many members of the Homebrew Club, and former colleagues of his spoke about his incredible influence on their work, ideas, and how he changed their lives.

It seemed as if he was the Buckminster Fuller of Silicon Valley in terms of how insightful and how brilliant he was, in story after story shared by people at the event. Others compared him to Leonardo DaVinci. 

I was astounded when an elderly man sitting behind me, was given the microphone and started to speak. It was Doug Engelbart.  I'd assumed he had passed away a long time ago by the way everyone spoke about him in the past.

I was invited to a post-event dinner for the speakers and press at a local restaurant. I was late in arriving and everyone was already seated. Everyone had crowded onto a large circular table trying to be as close as possible to where New York Times reporter John Markoff was sitting. 

I couldn't believe my luck. Over on another large circular table, half-empty, sat Doug Engelbart. I asked him if I could sit next to him and we talked for hours. I walked out with a great story, a story that no one had written before, a story of a genius whose work was largely killed by the personal computer "revolution" and how he'd spent decades trying to find companies to fund his work and research.

It's a story that shows Silicon Valley's ignorance of its own history and its disgraceful treatment of truly inspired visionaries such as Doug Engelbart, in favor of celebrating PR-boosted business managers who say they are changing the world but don't come close.

Pol Pot and the PC revolution…

As we spoke on that warm summer evening I listened to Mr. Engelbart tell me that the advent of the personal computer marked the end of his work on personal computer systems, and how he then was unable to find any funding over the following decades.

I was shocked. How was it that seminal work of such stature and importance, work that had been lauded so highly and eloquently at the Xerox PARC event a few hours ago, resulted in the exile of its originator, leaving him fund-less for decades?

Yet that's what happened. Hearing his story, the story of the PC "revolution" became more like a story of Pol Pot in Cambodia turning back the calendar to the year zero and we then had to reinvent so much that we already had.

"We had personal workstations that sent messages on a network, we could split a screen remotely, we had email, we had spreadsheets, word processor, applications," he said. This was in the early-70s well before we had the same capabilities on microcomputers from Apple, IBM, etc decades later.

Think of how far we could have come in terms of collaborative apps and augmented systems if we hadn't had to spend two decades reinventing what we already had.

In 2005, Mr Engelbart confided to me: "I sometimes feel that my work over the past 20 or so years has been a failure. I have not been able to get funding and I have not been able to engage anybody in a dialogue."

Power to be people…

His funding was based on the use of large computers connected to personal workstations that looked very much like PCs, a computer architecture called time-sharing.

But the microcomputer and its promise of being self-sufficient, unconnected to anything, was thought to be the future at the time. And the counter-culture with its hatred of "the Man" and centralized systems of power and oppression, rejected the time-sharing mainframe based computer architecture that underpinned the work of Mr. Engelbart and his colleagues. Big centralized systems were out of favor in the computer research communities and so was funding, which went to microcomputer based architectures.

The promise of the individual, power to the people, the ideals of radical self-sufficiency that ruled the counter-culture movement became enshrined in the promise of the stand-alone Personal Computer. It's an example of how popular culture can affect something as seemingly distant and unconnected as computer architecture.

Reinventing the past

Today's computer systems are essentially what we had with time-sharing mainframes in the 1960s and 70s: personal workstations connected to a large central computer system (server farm), able to communicate with each other and run spreadsheets, word processors, and apps. 

Ross Mayfield, in an interview with Doug Engelbart in June 2005, writes:

"We herald the PC revolution, but we should remember that it made us forget to share.  Timesharing enabled groups to share a common pool resource, sharing that, which impacted social dynamics.  With PCs, we were left on our own, however empowered."

He also points out that his work on keywords and tagging; and his work on computer augmentation to help solve some of mankind's most difficult problems. 

Silicon Valley lauds its pioneers but doesn't know what to do with them if they keep living. Logitech, which made a lot of money from the computer mouse, one of Mr Engelbart's creations, gave him permanent office space. And some of his supporters have provided modest amounts of money to enable him to keep working, as part of the Bootstrap organization, recently renamed the Doug Engelbart Institute.

Almost a decade later following our conversation, nothing much changed for Mr Engelbart. A lonely genius wandering for nearly 40 years amidst a desert of resources.

He died in the belief that there is an unfinished computer revolution, and with important unfinished work that he wasn't able to complete.

Silicon Valley has lost not only one of its greatest computer pioneers, but also squandered an incredible opportunity to fund his work and see what else he could have created. What new platforms of innovation could have come from his work, what new hundred billion dollar industries might have emerged? It's a truly tragic loss.

 - - -

 

Here's John Markoff:

 Douglas C. Engelbart, Inventor of the Computer Mouse, Dies at 88 - NYTimes.com

 

In December 1968 … he set the computing world on fire with a remarkable demonstration before more than a thousand of the world’s leading computer scientists at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco.

… he sat on stage in front of a mouse, a keyboard and other controls and projected the computer display on a 22-foot-high video screen behind him. In little more than an hour he showed how a networked, interactive computing system would allow information to be shared rapidly among collaborating scientists.

He demonstrated how a mouse, which he had invented just four years earlier, could be used to control a computer.

He demonstrated text editing, video conferencing, hypertext and windowing.

In contrast to the mainframes then in use, Dr. Engelbart had created a computerized system he called the “oNLine System” or NLS, which allowed researchers to share information seamlessly and to create and retrieve documents in the form of a structured electronic library.

. . .

The importance of Dr. Engelbart’s networking ideas would be underscored when, in 1969, his Augment NLS system became the application for which the ARPAnet computer network — the forerunner of the modern Internet — was created.

 

 

Topic: PCs

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15 comments
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  • Older Workers

    Show's Silicon Valley only care's about the Cash; Throw older people away, kinda sad?
    Pablo Cree
  • What about hose who are still in this mold and STILL being ignored

    We are forced to seek the lowest-cost housing, eat the lowest-cost food, and hope that someone notices before it's too late. There are thousands of us. Now we have a face! (And so what?) Pathetic- the cost of greed! People do not care to realize that the highly compensated risk-takers are risk-averse, but have good marketing resources.
    pcitizen
  • It's a story that shows Silicon Valley's ignorance of its own history

    and its disgraceful treatment of truly inspired visionaries such as Doug Engelbart in favor of celebrating PR-boosted business managers who say they are changing the world but don't come close.

    TRUE !
    sardire
  • Had His Head In The Cloud

    It appears that while the rest of the tech industry was chasing down the wrong path, Engelbart already saw the future of computing was in the "Cloud". What vision!
    drauckerr
  • Thank Steve Jobs

    Xerox Parc had no intention of sharing with the world their knowledge of personal computers. Xerox Parc already was using the mouse, keyboard, networked printers, word processors, windows, etc. They were perfectly content using this technology for themselves, and if it weren't for a deal struck by Apple executives, the technology could have gone totally unrecognized if Apple didn't popularize the use of a keyboard and mouse.

    As far as Silicon Valley not giving Englebart funding for his ideas it wouldn't have made any difference. It was a company in the Pacific Northwest, in Microsoft that has killed (and continues to kill) most of the progress in technology with their monopoly. Englebart could have made a start up and he just would have gotten bought out by Bill Gates and we'd never hear from him again.
    Maha888
    • you nailed it

      so many innovative technologies and progress has been lost over the 25 years of Microsoft's domain I was thinking the exact same thing. ie that he could have invented a teleportation system and if it didn't rely and run on Microsoft software it would have been targeted for destruction. Destruction can also come in the form of assimilation into the Windows fold as once inside they're clueless about anything but protecting the Windows ecosystem.
      dougbugl
    • Think Commodore and Atari...

      ... if you want to know who also had a mouse: in my collection of old computers I have a mouse for Commodore 64, albeit produced in 1986. You have to keep in mind that Commodore Amiga and Atari ST machines were direct competitors (and just a tad younger) than Macintosh, and both had mice and a GUI that relied greatly on mouse.

      And, frankly, Apple really did not popularize the use of a keyboard. :-)
      Radoslav Dejanovic
    • Catching up with the past

      Steve Jobs and Apple brought an implementation of the interfaces developed at Xerox PARC to a personal computer that could be purchased by real people (Altos and Dolphins, which appeared at some large universities, were not available). The underlying OS was not anywhere as sophisticated as the Unix kernel of the day, but it was through the Apple Macintosh that most of the world got a taste for WIMPy interfaces.

      I was working at a now extinct company in the early to mid 1980s. We were, for a time, the second largest computer company in the world. I was working on a personal computer before IBM came out with their "PC"; ours used a microcomputer chip implementation of a popular minicomputer. We had Ethernet networking, multi-user support and security, a heirarchical file system that supported floppies, hard disks, and networked files. We had 1024x256 8 color graphics (when equipped with the color option, otherwise it was 1024x256 monochrome (back and white, no grayscale), a 112 key keyboard, multi-tasking, and more working on the hardware in 1982. By 1983, we even had a prototype with mouse and audio support with improved graphics.

      When IBM introduced the PC, we were still in development. I was asked to write up a report on my impression of the machine and its CPM-like OS, "PC-DOS". After a few days of work, I wrote that "This environment sets the industry back 10 years".

      I was wrong. It set it back by far more than 10 years.
      Filker0_z
      • The second largest computer company in the 1980s was

        Digital Equipment Corporation, as far as I know. If not, I'd like to know who it was.
        chakr
  • Too many D-bags not enough visionaries

    Should we be surprised we VCs put their money behind the pinkus and zuckerburgs, so that they can pump up companies all about lightweight things. Where was google in not allocating some time and computing resources to this legend? or Apple or Amazon? Just so sad to see a man of such towering intellect and noble purpose not be listened to and venerated while he was still with us? I count myself fortunate to have met him and his daughter and I hope she continues on with his legacy.
    Planetwc
  • Too many D-bags not enough visionaries

    Should we be surprised we VCs put their money behind the pinkus and zuckerburgs, so that they can pump up companies all about lightweight things. Where was google in not allocating some time and computing resources to this legend? or Apple or Amazon? Just so sad to see a man of such towering intellect and noble purpose not be listened to and venerated while he was still with us? I count myself fortunate to have met him and his daughter and I hope she continues on with his legacy.
    Planetwc
  • Too many D-bags not enough visionaries

    Should we be surprised we VCs put their money behind the pinkus and zuckerburgs, so that they can pump up companies all about lightweight things. Where was google in not allocating some time and computing resources to this legend? or Apple or Amazon? Just so sad to see a man of such towering intellect and noble purpose not be listened to and venerated while he was still with us? I count myself fortunate to have met him and his daughter and I hope she continues on with his legacy.
    Planetwc
  • recalling the short threat to the PC called the NetPC

    I wonder if Mr Engelbart was cheering for the NetPC and once again disappointed to see it end at the hands of Wintel's monopoly protectionism? So many great technologies were lost in the name of protecting existing big business it does not surprise me noone would fund him. He was all about vision and therefore shaking up the system. What was the name of that book so many tech leaders now run their businesses by.....Innovators Dilemma or something like that.

    My guess is that if he was funded he may have amassed lots of patents but no products would be in use because of the threats they'd mean to the big companies. Yes, I'm looking at you Microsoft.
    dougbugl
  • "Silicon Valley largely ignored his work "

    Ughhh, BUZZZZ, guess again! Generalize much? Apple most certainly did NOT ignore him. They took Parc and did something with it, far more than Parc had done for itself.

    Atari? LOL, were you around back then? There were toy GUIs even for the 800 series, let alone the ST, but the ST had less than a snowball's chance of ever catching up to the Mac that inspired it.

    However ST and Amiga were better than any version of Windows prior to 'Win 95'...

    Windows is horrible to this day. Only a total clone rip-off of Mac, they didn't even change Apple's keystrokes. Apple reworked much of what Parc showed Jobs, in exchange for APPL shares.

    Of course Xerox and later MSFT both sold APPL shares that would be worth more than their respective companies had they kept them. LOL
    comp_indiana
  • Tell me again...

    ...just how much did they pay that great innovator and visionary Ballmer this year alone?
    btone-c5d11